“This Country’s Sky” – 2015 Japan Cuts Film Review

World War II ended almost 70 years ago, but because of Hollywood’s yearly crop of Oscar bait, it has become so mythologized in our collective consciousness that no one in their right mind would ever call war a righteous action. Within the context of World War II, the fight against the Axis Powers may be the closest humanity has ever come to a literal battle of good versus evil, especially when the atrocities committed by the Nazis and Japanese Imperial Army became public knowledge.

Such a binary way of thinking leaves out countless stories of individuals who were just as affected by the war even if they had never picked up a rifle or marched into battle. In Haruhiko Arai’s “This Country’s Sky” (この国の空, 2015) the War in the Pacific is told from the perspective of two women, a widowed mother (Youki Kudoh) and her young daughter Saotoko (Fumi Nikaido). Set primarily in a bombed-out Tokyo during the War’s final years, Arai’s focus on the home front is less Grave of the Fireflies and more akin to an Ingmar Bergman picture.  Though the looming threat of American bombers and starvation is ever-present, Arai is far more interested in Saotoko’s journey from a milquetoast teenager to sexually mature young woman.

Hiroki Hasegawa plays the love interest Ichikawa, a sympathetic but disturbing character. When we first meet him he seems like a nice guy who helps Saotoko and her mother out, and whose necromanic ranting just seems eccentric. As the story progresses, his behavior soon escalates into erotic territory as the married Ichikawa tries to establish a sexual relationship with Saotoko. His seduction techniques leave a lot to be desired as he merely pounces on her, hoping that she just acquiesce to his desires. For all his charm and bluster about death he is a coward, so scared of being conscripted into the army that he directs all his pent up fear and frustration into trying to rape Saotoko.

Yet Arai is not interested in delving into cheap melodrama. The film doles out the story slowly, and large chunks of it deal with Saotoko’s interactions with her family or the small number of people still living in her community. From her scenes with Ichikawa and her family, it’s not a stretch to see that Saotoko is a tragic figure.  In Nikaido’s performance we are shown hints of a woman that, although not yet 20 years old, has already blossomed sexually and through the act has come to understand that all the promises made to her will go unfulfilled. Even as the film closes with Saotoko and Arai, it would be foolish to think that it will end happily for the two.

As a renowned screenwriter for several contemporary Japanese indie films and a member of Japan’s literati, Arai foregoes a lot of avant-garde techniques to distance the audience from the characters or the story. He utilizes a theatrical visual style, setting many of the scenes indoors, at home, and oftentimes with only Saotoko and another character interacting with one another. Arai and his production team work hard to make the audience feel the stultifying claustrophobia of being trapped in a place where death can happen at anytime but also give life to what is outside the frame.

While watching “This Country’s Sky” I often felt like I was watching a post-apocalyptic survival horror story. The hellish orange sky, the burned out buildings, and sparse population of people are all tropes of the genre, and although there are moments in the film when the characters can enjoy a summer breeze or a visit to a centuries-old Buddhist monastery, these scenes do more to illustrate the dire straits all Japanese were in. “This Country’s Sky” is contemplative cinema at its best. While a majority of the West prays to the gods of manic cinema, Arai keeps to the faith and trusts that the audience will follow him wherever he goes.

The world premiere of “This Country’s Sky” takes place at the Japan Society in New York on Sat., July 18, at 6 p.m., as part of Japan Cuts 2015.  Director Haruhiko Arai and actress Youki Kudoh will attend the screening.  For ticket information, go to japansociety.org.